I’m about to ask you a question that most people in the world would consider to be quite rude.  But it is necessary in order to make a point about living a minimalist lifestyle and exploring one’s personal potential as we travel around this pla.net.  

So, here goes …

How old are you?

Okay, I realize that is a personal question.  My apologies.  Let me step back and ask a different question.

How many things do you own?

Again, not the easiest question to answer.  For most people they have no idea of the actual number of things in their life.  Hundreds?  Thousands?  Who knows?

One last question for you then.

What is the difference between those two numbers?

A tricky question to answer since most people only know one of those numbers to begin with.

I started thinking about that question myself this past year and In my efforts to be increasingly minimalist in my life and travels I have come up with a personal challenge for myself.

I want the difference in numbers between my age and my possessions to be zero.

Or in other words, I want to own the same number of things as I have lived years on the planet.

I want to own my age.

For me that is 43 (gulp!), which means I would allow myself to own 43 things.

When I tell most people that number they balk.  43 things?  ONLY?  How is that possible?

Well, that is the question, isn’t it?  How can I make that happen?  How can I reduce my possessions to a number that some people use to describe how many shoes they own?  (I currently own 4 pairs of shoes, by the way, not including 2 pairs of wushu shoes).

I’m sure many of you have heard of the 100 things challenge.  I suppose that was part of the inspiration for this.  But more than that I just had a deep desire to understand exactly what a person actually needs to survive in today’s world.  (I also credit Man vs. Wild for some of the inspiration.)

Sometimes I ask people that question: “What do you need in order to survive“?

Most of them refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which deals with Man’s needs from both a physiological and psychological perspective.  But what I’m talking about is a bit different than that.  His list is more of an analysis of the human condition — from food to air to love to fulfillment, and everything in between — whereas I’m more curious about what possessions are necessary.  What “things” would you need to have with you in your life in order to accomplish anything that you might need to do.

This comes down to who you are and what you do.  Obviously someone who does construction work is going to need steel toed boots as part of their profession. That is a possession they require which I do not.  Likewise, as a web designer, I require a computer which many people in the world do not require as part of their daily existence.

Using a computer to access things like Facebook or e-mail is not an actual need in this context (although it might feel like one) as it is not essential to your survival in today’s society.  If you need to access e-mail you can do so by going to a net cafe or using a smart phone or tablet with those capabilities.

So, in order to know what is “necessary” it requires one to look at their own life and see what they do as part of their daily existence.  What things do you do every day or week that are true requirements for your life.  And then, what are the most basic things you need in order to do those tasks?

Sure, as a designer I would love to have a Waccom tablet.  But is it essential?  No, not really.  I can design with a laptop and mouse.

Or for my work doing digital content development do I need a video camera, plus a digital SLR, plus a flip cam?  Of course not.  For media content development I just need one camera that can do all of what I require.

So, I took a long look at my own life and broke things in to specific categories of “thing” types.  Here is what I came up with as my general categories:

  1. Clothes: Stuff that protects my frail human body from the elements.
  2. Toiletries: Things that keep my body clean and free from disease (mostly).
  3. Life: Things that help me survive in society beyond the essentials and keep me fulfilled as a human being.
  4. Travel: What I need to move myself around this pla.net.
  5. Work: What I need to make a living and earn some scratch.

So, five categories of “things” that fulfill my needs as a functioning member of society.  How does one fit their age number in to those five categories?

Clothes

First, I started with clothes, as that was something I could easily analyze.

In my life what do I use clothes for?  Since most of my work is my own, I can get by with a fairly casual look.  I occasionally have need for a tie or a sport jacket, but those occasions are rare.  I do wushu and other sports, so I require athletic gear for that.  I also travel to a wide variety of climates so I need clothes that allow me to layer up and keep warm (or strip layers down to keep cool, as the case may be).

Since I’ve spent the last several years thinking about my “essential” clothing requirements this was the easiest list to tackle.  Here is what I came up with for myself:

  • 2 shirts
  • 1 button up shirt
  • 1 hoodie / sweatshirt
  • 1 rain jacket with insulation
  • 1 athletic jacket
  • 1 sport jacket
  • 1 necktie
  • 3 pairs of underwear
    • 2 exoficcio
    • 1 longjohns
  • 3 pairs of socks (wool, various colors)
  • 2 pairs of athletic / swimming shorts
  • 3 pairs of pants
    • 1 Convertible
    • 1 Jeans
    • 1 Slacks
  • 3 pairs of shoes
    • 1 black shoes (dress-up-able)
    • 1 running / wushu shoes
    • 1 sandals / huaraches
  • 5 accessories
    • 1 hat (beanie style, black)
    • 1 pair of gloves
    • 1 head sleeve
    • 1 pair of sunglasses
    • 1 belt

So, that is 26 things.  Not too bad.  I tried hard to think of a situation that might arise which wouldn’t be covered by this set of clothing items.  From a business meeting or wedding (i.e. formal) to the beach or wushu hall (i.e. casual) I couldn’t think of someplace I might find myself that wouldn’t be accommodated.

Now, a few notes about these things.  I probably don’t need a few of these items to survive.  My life wouldn’t end without the head sleeve, for example. But I’ve found it is something that I use quite often that aids in my level of comfort in my day-to-day life.

I’m also fortunately that we live in a world with convertible pants (pants with removable lower legs to turn them in to shorts) and microfiber underwear that are super sturdy, quick drying and travel like true champs. Yay for technology!

Okay, so the clothing category is finished and I’m down 26 items with 17 slots remaining.  What is next?

Toiletries

First I want to provide a caveat to this whole list.  The idea of consumable products such as food or toothpaste, etc.

In my challenge I don’t consider these as “possessions” because of the time span in which you use them.  A pair of shoes can last for years (if taken care of), whereas once you use your toothpaste up, you’re done with it and have to get a new one.

I categories these things as “consumables” because the purpose in getting them is to consume them, use them, and then they disappear.

You might argue that technically a pair of shoes are also consumable because you also use them and then they eventually disappear.  But my distinction is that it is a matter of time and purpose.  Time, because the shoes are meant to be used continuously over a long period of time.  For example, once you put the toothpaste on your teeth, I’m pretty sure you don’t plan on using it again the next time you brush (eww!).  The purpose of the shoes are to be used over and over, whereas the purpose of the toothpaste (or shampoo, groceries, etc.) is to be used just once.

So, having said that, I realized that the toiletries that are actually necessary are pretty small in number.  At least for myself.  Here is what I have:

  • Toothbrush
  • Towel

And that’s it.  Everything else I use in the bathroom or for hygiene is a consumable.  Shaving cream, shampoo, soap — all consumables.

I suppose you could argue that a razor is not a consumable since I use it more than once for at least a month or three at a time.  And, sure, I could probably put a razor on that list.  Why don’t I?  Well, I usually pick up those little travel pack razors that come with the little travel pack of shaving cream.  Once I’m done with the shaving cream I’m pretty much done with the razor.  Due to their quality they aren’t really good for much more than a couple weeks worth of shaves anyway.

I suppose the one change I might make is to get myself a single blade razor.  But then, traveling with a long shiny blade in your luggage becomes a problem.  Heck, I can’t even travel with a travel razor on most U.S. domestic flights.  If I can’t travel with it, then the lifespan of the item goes way down.

So, we are down 2 more things and have another 15 slots.  What is the next category?

Life

I defined these as “Things that help me survive in society beyond the essentials and keep me fulfilled as a human being”.  I think you’ll see from the list that some of these are not true “essentials” but are things that, for me, help me to operate at a good rate of efficiency.

  • Wallet w/ Bank Cards
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Travel Guitar
  • Prayer Book
  • Moleskin Notebook + pen
  • Jump Rope
  • Bicycle

Naturally a few of these are essential.  I need a way to withdraw and deposit money in the bank.  I consider the wallet as part of the bank cards, although I suppose there are those minimalist money clip / card holders that would be good to try out.  Perhaps in the future?

A sleeping bag is something I see as essential because I don’t always have bedding in the places I visit.  You can get pretty nice sleeping bags that compress down to almost nothing these days.  Quite easy to travel with.

And, since I’m someone who feels compelled to express part of their creative impulses through music, I have my travel guitar. This is probably the most unwieldy piece of equipment I carry around.  Compared to a standard guitar it is much smaller, but it is still something extra. It still falls within my carry-on only policy though, so that is good.  Also, the small bag that the guitar comes with, along with the electronic tuner and capo (and picks) I consider as part of the guitar package.

This reminds me that I should explain that my second caveat to this challenge is that things that go together are one thing.  For example, with my laptop, I don’t consider the charging cable or laptop neoprene case as different things.  They all go together because they are essential to each other’s operation.  The same thing with my guitar accessories.  Those go with my guitar because I use them all together as part of one package item.  So, just keep this in mind as we go through the rest of the list.  It will become more relevant when we get to the “work” category below.

I have a prayer book listed here for my spiritual fulfillment, but even this isn’t completely necessary.  In fact, I have a digital version of it on my iPhone.  However, something about having the actual book in my hands is satisfying and feels more “real” somehow.  Other books I don’t mind reading on the kindle or ibooks app on my iphone or computer, but for this particular one I feel that the physical book is better.  I might change that opinion in the future, but for now this is what I have chosen.

This is also the reason I have chosen to have a physical moleskin notebook and pen (again, the second caveat applies since I use them together).  Actually, if I had a iPad mini it might take the place of both the moleskin as well as the prayer book, since it is pretty much the right size.  But for now this is where we are.

Second to last I have a jump rope.  This might seem a little strange to you.  It is actually the only piece of exercise equipment I own.  A good jump rope can be used creatively for so many different types of exercises (and mine even fills in as a belt or clothes line on occasion!) that I find it is one of the things on my list that is extremely useful and personally essentially.

For the last item, I’m pretty sure you saw the word “bicycle” and thought But that isn’t minimal!  Bikes are huge!. And that is true.  They are quite large.

The reality is, however, that I don’t take the bike everywhere I go.  I just keep the bike in the “home base” location I happen to be living.  So, for example, I’m currently living in Xi’an, China so that is where I keep my bike.  When I go on a trip to Shanghai or Beijing I don’t take the bike with me (at least not so far).  It is currently my primary mode of transportation besides my feet.

So, transporting the bike is usually a once a year type of thing.  Whatever my next location is will be the place where I keep the bike.

I considered having a smaller folding bike.  In fact, I’ve had one of those before.  But for the way I ride and how I use my bike, it didn’t make sense.  So, I have a standard mountain bike.

And, along with the second caveat, things like my bike helmet, pump, odometer, etc. that go with the bike are counted as part of the package.

Alrighty.  That is 7 more items on the list, for a total of 33 things and 10 more slots available.  The next category is …

Travel

In order to make my way around this pla.net, it is important that I have the right gear.  Obviously all 43 of my things aren’t going to fit in my pockets so I need a few things to carry my essential around in.  Here is the list of my travel things:

  • Passport
  • International Driver’s License
  • Travel Bag
  • Day Bag
  • Travel towel

I think most of these things are pretty self-explanatory.  Obviously a passport is essential to get around.  And the two bags are part of my travel needs too (my day bag doubles as a laundry bag or a stuff sack while I’m in transit).

I don’t actually have an international driver’s license, but I do have a standard one for the U.S.  Eventually an international one would be handy, but I haven’t been in the U.S. in a while so haven’t gotten around for applying for it.  Next time I’m back home it will be the plan.

The travel towel might seem strange.  It is basically a large hand towel that I carry with me when I’m traveling.  The reason is that I often find myself traveling through very hot and humid locations and find myself needing to wipe the sweat off my brow or neck from time to time.  The other reason is that in some countries they don’t provide paper towels or drying machines in the bathrooms.  This helps with both of those situations.

It is also nice in the morning when you are just going to wash your face but don’t need the full-on body towel (or smaller microfiber towel, as is the case with mine).

Nice, that was 5 easy things down for the list with a running grand total of 38 items and 5 items remaining.  With one more category I think we are just about home.

Work

This category is where my second caveat comes in to play.  It is the one where things that go together and are used together are counted as one item.  For example, the capo and the guitar, or the notebook and pen.  You’ll see a few similar examples in this area too.

  • Laptop
  • Smart Phone
  • DSLR Camera
  • External Memory Storage
  • Unipod or Tripod

Since I am a designer, most of my essential items for work are electronics.  I also do a fair amount of digital content creation so that is why you see the camera and tripod in there.  Here are some more details on this list:

I currently use a late 2012 MacBook Air for my work.  Accessories included in this package are the neoprene case, mousepad and mouse, and the power cable.  I also include a power outlet adaptor as part of this package since it is necessary in order to use the computer in various countries I might visit.

My smart phone is an iPhone 4.  I also include the power/sync cable with this, along with a protective case (that doubles as a spare battery).  It also came with headphones so those are part of it as well.

The DSLR Camera comes with two lenses, a cleaning cloth, memory card and battery charger.  I currently don’t have a DSLR that takes video, but that will eventually be my plan.  At the moment I’m using my iPhone for video taking purposes, but eventually that will change.

External memory storage is for my backups or for project files.  I have a LOT of media files, so I need somewhere to put them.  Right now that is in 2 TB of small external drives (four 500GB drives now, but eventually I will reduce it to one 2TB drive) and I also have a memory stick for quick access storage.

Why aren’t these part of the computer package?  Well, even if I didn’t have the computer, I would still need somewhere to store my digital files.  Even if it was just a USB memory stick, that is what I consider as part of my external storage package.  So, having an external drive to carry around isn’t necessarily something that requires my computer, although that is typically how I access it these days.

And finally I have a unipod or tripod. This is for times when I take video at events or need to steady my camera.  I currently have a tripod, but I’m not opposed to someday replacing it with a unipod (that might double as a walking stick?  Anything can happen!).

So, there you have it.  43 items for the (almost) 43 years of my life.

I should mention that this list is not what I currently have.  It is my goal.  My challenge.  This is what I aspire to achieve during my 43rd year of life.  I am going to work to reduce myself down to just these items during the next several months so that, by the time I leave China, I will be truly mobile and minimal and free of clutter.

What about your home?

Some people have asked me about things like dishes or furniture or appliances.  Since my wife and I live a pretty mobile lifestyle, and most of the places we live in come furnishes or have those things already, they aren’t a part of our list of possessions.  Anything that is a service which we are renting or leasing we don’t consider as our things so they aren’t a part of this challenge.

For example, the house keys to our apartment are actually a part of the apartment itself, which is leased. So they don’t belong to us.  We are using them temporarily.  I don’t consider them my possession any more than I would for a rental car or a fork at a restaurant.  They are being borrowed or used for a period of time from another person or a business.

So, that is my list.  What about you?  Have you tried to reduce your own possessions down at any point?  Were you successful?  (Or was it stressful?)  I’ve love to hear what you feel are the true essentials in your life.

Likewise, if there is anything you think I’ve missed in my list (quite possible) let me know.  I’m constantly revising my list and working out different combinations so if you have a great idea on something I should include (or take out) I’m all ears!  Just post a comment below.